Thursday, July 18, 2013

Spring Breakers

Director: Harmony Korine
Starring: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Gucci Mane, Heather Morris, Jeff Jarrett
Running Time: 94 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

What starts out looking like it's going to be Project X meets Girls Gone Wild, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers quickly evolves into a visual ballet of debaucherous hedonism dripping in violence and scathing social commentary. Gorgeously shot and masterfully edited, it's the first film of 2013 that deserves to be remembered come awards time, especially in key technical categories. But the bigger question is how Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson will explain this to their parents. Hopefully, they'll do it by telling them they actually participated in the creation of art. Their casting isn't a stunt, as within minutes you completely forget who you're watching and are transported down a sadistic hellhole you know from the beginning can't end in a real victory for anyone.

For those like me who are only mildly aware of these actresses by the their squeaky reputations, the film accomplishes its goal of temporarily minimizing (if not outright eliminating) the eye rolling that usually accompanies the mere mention of their names. When you make serious choices you get taken seriously. At least for 90 minutes. But the most pleasant surprise is how no concessions are made to make this more mainstream or commercial because of who's in it and what it's about. And it isn't just "about" a spring break gone very bad. It feels bigger than that. And badder. The notion that youth is wasted on the young has never rang as true as it does here.

Longing to escape their boring, small-town existence, friends and college students Faith (Gomez), Candy (Hudgens), Brit (Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) aim to earn enough to go on spring break. Falling short on funds, but armed with squirt guns and a hammer, a ski-masked Brit and Candy end up robbing a fast-food restaurant with Cotty as their getaway driver. As the youngest and most inexperienced, the naive, religious Faith is like a baby deer caught in headlights, but agrees to go on the trip anyway for the experience. It's an experience that goes south in a hurry as the girls drink, do drugs and engage in wild sexual behavior before being arrested and falling in with a drug dealing, murderous rapper named Alien (James Franco) who crosses the wrong people. The girls came for the memories and they'll get them, provided that they're able to live long enough to tell anybody about it.

The exact moment when the movie starts to really become something is when the girls are bailed out of prison and step outside to meet the man responsible for it. They now belong to Alien. Brit, Candy and Cotty, who enjoyed robbing the restaurant entirely too much, are already ripe for the picking by the time this thug gets his claws into them, and they're more than willing to give his dangerous and exciting criminal lifestyle a test drive. Faith is a far different story, and much of that is laid out in the film's opening minutes when she's lectured by her youth pastor (pro wrestler Jeff Jarrett, surprisingly believable) about the sins she's unknowingly about to engage in with her delinquent friends.

Casting Gomez as a girl torn between a religious upbringing and desperately wanting to fit in was probably an easy call, but an inspired one nonetheless. She also looks all of about 12, which makes the seemingly angelic and uncorruptable Faith's potential descent into hedonism all the more shocking and disturbing when it arrives. While her heart's really not into it, the other three are clearly further along the path to amorality and one of the film's biggest questions is who decides to take the bus home and who stays back to play the odds that they'll survive when the bullets start flying.

Calling a group of actresses are interchangeable is usually considered insulting but here it's a compliment since each of them perfectly fulfills their specific requirement for the story. Korine moves them as game pieces across his board with none upstaging any of the others as they work in synchronized harmony right up until the end, which comes sooner for some than others. By the time we get to that point, it's clear who the standouts are. Of the four, Hudgens and Benson stand to get the biggest career bump from this while Gomez will likely revert back to being Selena Gomez, and the largely unknown but shockingly good Rachel Korine already has a great gig appearing in her husband's movies. In a perfect world, these actresses would make choices as captivating as this every time out but the reality remains that true risk taking roles don't come along often enough. Hopefully, it's not just a one-off.

But it's the unrecognizably grilled-out, cornrowed James Franco steals the whole thing out from under all of them with his craziest, most immersive performance yet, which says a lot considering his career trajectory both on and off the screen. Looking like a cross between rapper Riff Raff and Kevin Federline, his Scarface-obsessed Alien alternates between being completely terrifying and downright hilarious. It combines the best of all Francos, proving that when he gets serious about disappearing into a role, few are more interesting or as far-reaching as a performer. You can't even believe it's him, and as uphill a battle as it seems to be, a supporting nomination definitely seems worth fighting for.

Alien's arrival marks the picture's transition into a hallucinatory dream, or more accurately, a feverish nightmare. Much of this can also be attributed to Korine's editing, which  seamlessly interweaves flashbacks and flashforwards into key scenes, culminating in the film's most visually stunning sequence, as an oceanfront piano singalong to Britney Spears' "Everytime" is intercut with a blood-soaked killing spree. When people talk about this movie, it'll be that montage and these sun-drenched images they're referring to. Credit cinematographer Benoit Debie for lensing the best looking film of the year, as well as composer Cliff Martinez and Skillrex for providing the hypnotic score. But the only thing more exhilarating than watching that scene might be imagining Spears watching it, with all the satiric nuance behind its usage flying right over her head. She should pay Korine for using it. When Alien calls Spears a "great girl" we have no doubt he absolutely means it, even as we're certain the movie does not.

The biggest hurdle facing the film is figuring out the audience it's supposed to be for.  But does that even matter? Teen girls naturally gravitate toward these actresses while only serious adult film buffs would be interested in the latest directed by Harmony Korine, whose work is legitimately eccentric and inaccessible to put it lightly. He cleverly negotiates his way around this, tricking the former into watching a highbrow arthouse film, while still reassuring the latter that, despite its cast and plot, they've come to the right place. The casting is less a stunt than a brilliantly controlled experiment, placing actresses who are hard to take seriously under normal circumstances into the hands of a filmmaker who forces us to at gunpoint.

Asking how far as a culture we're willing to go while also questioning just how much America's parameters have changed, the biggest argument against the film is that despite its highly stylized aesthetic, it's still just about what it's about: spring break. And that's exactly it, as the closing voiceover disturbingly reminds us. Spring Breakers pushes Ebert's famous theory that a movie's not what it's about, but how, to its breaking point. And then it dares to push some more.   

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Abigail Spencer
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: PG

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When it's firing on all cylinders, Sam Raimi's The Wizard of Oz prequel, Oz: The Great and Powerful really works. And when it isn't, it doesn't. The film's a success whenever it's attempting to find inspiration from the classic 1939 MGM film and a failure when looking to the Star Wars prequels for it. While this isn't quite as flawed as that, it still earns that comparison through some clunky dialogue stretches and an overkill of unnatural looking CGI effects that frequently overwhelm the integrity of the production. It helps there's at least some narrative riches from which to draw, even if the filmmakers and Disney were legally and creatively hamstrung by having to adhere strictly to L. Frank Baum's Oz novels instead of the classic film, which Warner Bros. owns. But whatever issues exist shouldn't be pinned on James Franco, whose entire persona seems perfectly matched to the title character and his story arc, which is surprisingly well executed. And he doesn't even give the best performance in the film. Looking down the credits, it's easy to guess who does, but even that wasn't a given in this situation. Despite feeling almost achingly mainstream to a fault, nothing seems completely "safe" when you're messing with cinematic mythology. The movie definitely has problems, but still has enough virtues not to dismiss entirely.

In a clever visual callback to The Wizard of Oz, the movie opens in black and white in Kansas in 1905. Oscar "Oz" Diggs (Franco) is a struggling, small-time magician in a traveling circus known under his stage name, "Oz: the Great and Powerful." But he's hardly either, earning a reputation as a lying, egotistical charlatan who not only weasels and cheats his way through performances, but verbally berates his loyal assistant Frank (Zach Braff). He's also a serial womanizer, seducing a local girl (Abigail Spencer) helping with his show and rebuking his former flame Annie (Michelle Williams), who's now engaged to another man. But when Oscar escapes a precarious situation in a hot air balloon, a tornado transports him to the Land of Oz, where he's mistaken by a smitten Theodora (Mila Kunis) as the "Wizard" who's arrived to overthrow the Wicked Witch. As the opportunistic Oscar plays along with the ruse, Theodora's sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is more skeptical and has her sights set on destroying Glinda The Good Witch (also Williams).

Many would claim that the the movie's strongest section is the black-and-white Kansas prologue and when Oscar arrives in Oz and the picture fades into color, things just aren't as interesting as it flirts with being just another overstuffed spectacle. While it's tough to completely disagree with that, I'll at least give credit where it's due to Raimi for wisely cribbing that famous color transition from the 1939 classic, even if it can't possibly carry the same impact. As a setting, his version of Oz is problematic in exactly the same way most of these imagined movie universes now are with no one looking like they're actually a part of their environment. The effects resemble a video game and it's plainly obvious the actors are working against a green screen to the point that it almost took me right out of the story. Then after a while I got used to it, despite this being a classic case of more being less and material basically begging for simpler, more practical effects. If the intention was for Oz to look and feel like a real place, then it's fair to say that's the film's biggest failing. The one effect that undeniably does work is the China Doll character voiced by Joey King, which realistically resembles a porcelain doll and displays a whole range of childlike mannerisms and facial expressions that never look and feel anything less than human. Finley the monkey isn't as digitally well rendered but Zach Braff turns in some inspired vocal work.

Between the effects and some of the exchanges that initially take place between Oscar and Theodora, it's hard not to think of the Star Wars prequels with Mila Kunis acclimating herself about as well (or as poorly) as Natalie Portman did in that franchise, tripping over some clunky dialogue. Franco, however, has the right idea and plays Oscar in his classic James Franco laid back style in which he seems almost amused by the lines he's delivering. The result is almost comparable to his stint hosting the Oscars, except this time while awake. In this particular setting, that works and he certainly doesn't shy away from playing him as a slimy jerk with only a few redeeming qualities. It's kind of a great performance, and unlikely we we'd have the movie we do without it since he does get you to at least care about the character, regardless of his likability level.

The marketing team went to almost extraordinary lengths to conceal the identity of the Wicked Witch in what turned out to be the worst kept secret since the twist in The Crying Game. To be safe, I won't reveal anything other than that the actress is thanklessly asked to do a full-on imitation of Margaret Hamilton's iconic performance in the 1939 film and fares better than expected considering what she's up against. It's easy to argue that when that somewhat complicated transformation takes place and Glinda arrives on the scene the movie really starts to find its footing. But more accurately, it's the unmatched Michelle Williams, who's made her career starring in smaller, artsier projects that probably don't cost half as much as the catering on this one, coming to the rescue in a capacity we've rarely ever seen her in. It almost takes a bit just to wrap your head around it, but her crossover into "movie star" territory is as awesome as you'd expect it to be. Alleviating any potential concerns her skills would be wasted trying to elevate fluffier, more mainstream material, Williams speaks every line and delivers each gesture as Glinda as if she not only understands exactly what she's saying and doing, but actually believes it deep within her soul. Her warm embodiment of pure goodness and optimistic charm provides the perfect contrast to Franco's character, acting as his guide on the journey and bringing the story full circle. It's largely because of their scenes together everything eventually comes together in a semi-satisfying way.

Considering the legal restrictions, it's a miracle this film was made at all and a credit to the source material that it still very much feels like an Oz story, even with the absence of key elements we tend to directly associate with it. And yet it still kind of doesn't. I mostly blame that on the technology, which somehow looks worse than it did in 1939 because it looks better. If that makes any sense. With a relatively strong script and two great performances it's hard not to wonder how good this could have been if it wasn't Disneyfied within an inch of its life and the not so special effects didn't look so awful. But we already have that movie. It's called The Wizard of Oz. Williams and Franco are the primary reasons to see this but considering you can pretty much see any other project of theirs at random and extract greater value, that's just not enough. Of course, I'm not in the target audience for this anyway so it hardly matters. For all the little details Raimi got right, he got the big thing wrong. The sense of magic and wonder we all associate with Oz is at least partially missing because it feels like it was made by a committee more concerned that everything look and feel expensively fake. And that's just too big a big hurdle to clear when attempting to resuscitate a property with a history as substantial as this.         

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Killing Them Softly

Director: Andrew Dominick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard, Vincent Curatola
Running Time: 97 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush are seen or heard so many times in the 2008-set gangster drama Killing Them Softly that they could reasonably share top billing with Brad Pitt and no one would think anything of it. Hardly a scene goes by where they're not either on the radio delivering a speech or stumping for themselves on TV. It's obvious what director Andrew Dominik was going for with his repeated attempts to connect the U.S. economic crisis of six years ago to the state of organized crime, even going so far as to update the setting of George V. Higgins' 1974 novel, Cogan's Trade, to do it. Too obvious. That it seems to be the only thing worth talking about speaks volumes about how distractingly prominent it is, which is a shame because the film isn't without its virtues and actually starts off really well. At best, it's an interesting experiment that again proves Brad Pitt isn't afraid to take chances, but it just runs out of narrative steam after a while, hardly amounting to much by the time the closing credits arrive.

It's the fall of 2008 and a whiny, "in over his head" Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and drug addict Russell (Ben Mendolsohn) are recruited by Mafia boss Johnny "Squirrel" Amato to hold up and rob Markie Trattman's (Ray Liotta) poker room. Since Markie robbed his own game to earn insurance money before with no repercussions, Squirrel figures he'd just be suspected again without getting off as easy this time around. Everything seems to go off without a hitch until hitman Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is tipped off by a mob informant (Richard Jenkins) about what went down and he makes it it his mission to whack the party responsible, which isn't good news for Squirrel, Frankie, Russell, or even the falsely implicated Markie. He enlists the help of hitman Mickey Fallon (James Gandolfini) to get the job done, but things get a little more complicated than expected.  

When director Andrew Dominik focuses solely on the task at hand in developing this story and its characters, the results are surprisingly successful, especially in the film's engaging opening hour. When he turns his attention to overt symbolism and attempts to draw broad parallels between the country's financial collapse due to a lack of oversight and the political hiearachy within organized crime, the film fails miserably. Besides the comparison itself being somewhat of a stretch (at least in the context it's presented), Dominick just won't give the idea a rest, even when the heavy-handed allegorical flashiness is clearly detrimental, if not completely at odds, with the inherent grittiness of the material. The filmmakers probably would have been better off just setting this in 1974 and calling it Cogan's Trade since it does seem like that's what they really wanted to do the whole time, with the script basically shouting for it at points. If it's any relief, Roberta Flack's 70's hit does not at any point make a soundtrack appearance but the film's title is referenced through a memorable dialogue exchange that at least offers somewhat of a clue as to its meaning. I was satisfied, if completely unsurprised, by the explanation. But least that has more to do with an emotional crisis than a financial one.     

A lot of interesting things occur within the opening hour, too many of them under-cut with reminders that IT'S 2008 AND THERE'S A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION COMING UP. In case you haven't heard. And hear you will. During the big hold-up. In the mobster's car radios. Everywhere. Do mobsters listen to talk radio? No matter. In this film they do it non-stop just so we get the message. The sad part is that most everything else works until the half-way point. President Bush's TV cameo aside, the big hold-up scene crackles with intensity and Scoot McNairy (who's the real lead here) is as impressive in this as we was in Argo last year, and just as unrecognizable as the bumbling, child-like Frankie. You almost feel sorry for a guy so clearly playing out of his league, while his partner in crime Russell is well played by a scary Mendelsohn as an  unpredictably dangerous wildcard.

Pitt's role is much smaller than ads let on but also a lot cooler and more calculated, dressed in all black and making his intro to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around." He makes a co-starring part seem larger and more important than it should on the strength of his charisma, used to menacing effect as Cogan. This also marks one of the final supporting performances in what was the increasingly prolific big screen career of the late James Gandolfini. And I'm glad there's still a few films of his still coming down the pike because he's much better than what he's saddled with here. As an aging, hot-headed hitman addicted to drugs and hookers he goes toe-to-toe with Pitt and more than holds his own, even if I'm completely uncertain as to the character's purpose in the story. It's right around this point that the film starts spinning its wheels and eventually limps over the finish line without much to show for it.  

Less a crime drama than a thematic bludgeoning, the character-centric moments of Killing Them Softly are subtle, and at times even masterful.  It's just a shame most of that is masked under a heavy load of pretension and overt symbolism. Being someone who's generally no big fan of mob movies in general, I was surprised how well the crime component played for me and how much potential it had, despite a myriad of issues that seemed fixable with a re-write or two. It was also impossible to market this as a "guy movie" since there's very little action to speak of and hardly a woman to be found. Even with a trimmed running time, calling this a tough sell is an understatement. Cited as a rare flop for Pitt, it isn't as worthless as you've heard, and at least undeserving of the "F" cinemascore rating thrust upon it by dejected audiences expecting an action thriller from the star. This is about as far from that as it gets, its meditative tone and style more closely resembling a crime film released in 1974 than 2008 or 2012. That's its biggest strength. Its weaknesses are scattered almost everywhere else, with its admittedly silly title actually representing the least of its problems.